By Sherry Kughn
JSU News Bureau
PLEASANT VALLEY --February 9, 2004 -- Author,
journalist Rick Bragg has reincarnated himself as a literary contender now that
his New York Times career is behind him.
Bragg says he is “back home.”
He’s living close to the place he made famous with his stories of growing up
poor in Appalachia, that is in Possom Trot, just east of where
he lives now in Pleasant
Valley. His only job now is writing
Bragg has bought his
publicity-shy mother, Margaret, a new house. It’s made of rock and cedar, but
it’s not a grandiose house in the way “rock and cedar” frequently bring to mind.
It’s a simple home made lovelier by the way it sits atop a small hill surrounded
with several acres of pastureland, woodlands, and a small pond.
Bragg is also near what he
considers his college home. Wherever he goes he tells people that he’s a
freshman at Jacksonville
University. He laughs knowing that
even though his academic studies haven’t taken him beyond being a freshman, his
career success has taken him places that few people go. He spent a year of study
Bragg attended JSU in the late
1970s where he took feature writing and reporting. He doesn’t remember finishing
the reporting class. “I think I got an incomplete,” he said in an interview this
past winter. “I was too anxious to sit still in school.” Nonetheless, Bragg
holds a Pulitzer Prize in the field of journalistic feature writing, and his
books usually hit the bestseller’s lists.
At the time he was a student,
Bragg also served as a sports reporter at The Jacksonville News. It was his first
reporting job, one he took out of high school after “doing pick and shovel
work.” From The News he went to The Daily Home in
Talladega and later to The Anniston Star and The Birmingham News. He thrived in the
newsroom setting, and his local experience led to bigger reporting jobs. He
moved next to the St. Petersburg
Times, worked briefly at The Los
Angeles Times and then went to work for The New York Times.
It was while working for The Times that Bragg won the Pulitzer in
1996 for a series of feature stories he covered about contemporary
Included were stories about elderly prisoners; the sheriff who arrested Susan
Smith for drowning her children; a
Mississippi cleaning woman who
donated money to a university; and the
Oklahoma bombing. The Pulitzer
judges called the pieces, “elegantly written.”
Bragg loved the life of a
corresponding reporter. He went to exotic places, met people who were far
different from those he grew up with in
County. His stories helped people, he
discovered, such as those published during the Haitian crises in the early
1990s, which possibly hastened the United
States invasion. Other stories shed light on
people in desperate situations. People told him their stories, he learned, and
trusted him. It was a trust he valued.
There was a downside to his job,
though. He missed his family. Traveling was often hard, and his job was
sometimes dangerous. He stayed so busy he never had time to start his own
family. Looking back, though, he says he has no regrets about his career.
“I always had a choice,” he said.
“I did what I wanted to do.”
Throughout his years as a
reporter, Bragg wrote books. His first, All Over But the Shoutin’, came out in
1997. It was a personal memoir honoring his mother for her sacrifice in raising
her three sons. It also chronicled his career. He published a collection of his
favorite news stories called, Somebody
Told Me. He wrote
another memoir, Ava’s Man, by
interviewing family members who told him about his maternal grandfather, Charlie
Bundrum. The book was published in 2002.
Bragg collected awards like
pearls on a string for both his journalism and his literary career. In the early
1990s he applied for and received the prestigious Nieman Fellowship to
University (1992-93). He twice
received the Distinguished Writing Award by the American Society of Newspaper
Editors and won dozens of national, regional and state writing awards. In
addition his books have won awards from the Southeast Booksellers Association,
the Alabama Library Association, the Southern Book Critics Circle, and his books
have been selected for book reads, even once by the entire state of
In spite of all of his
achievements the walls in Bragg’s basement office have no trace of any of his
achievements or awards. “When I was
younger I put them all on the wall,” he said. “I guess I thought it all made me
look smart. I don’t care so much anymore about looking smart.”
Bragg has good reason to be more
reserved these days. After Ava’s Man
was published, and while he was working in New
Orleans for The
Times, a controversy blew up at the New
York office where Jayson Blair, a reporter, was accused
of faking news stories. The publicity led to an accusation that Bragg was using
a stringer without attributing the work. Bragg defended himself by saying that
Times editors were aware of his use
of the stringer. Editors, though, in light of Blair’s troubles, suspended Bragg
for two weeks, with pay. He resigned shortly afterward.
What happened after Bragg
resigned underscored his claim that he’s led a charmed life. He received a
contract to write the story of American soldier Jessica Lynch. He received a
half million dollars from the publisher, and he got a contract for writing two
more books. When the book tour was over, Bragg didn’t look for a new job. He
decided to focus entirely on his literary career.
Now that Bragg’s life has
settled, he is reflective about things he missed during his days as a
“I want to take a vacation,” he
said. “I haven’t had one that didn’t involve writing or work for seven years. I
want to spend more time with Mom and my brother, Sam.”
Bragg says he missed attending
family reunions, which he doesn’t plan to do again. There have been a few times,
too, when he misses having a wife and children. "I
recently watched a ballgame between Jacksonville High
School," he said.
"As I sat up there in the stands and watched those boys, I thought how good it
would be to have a son down there."
Bragg walked up from his basement
and into the den with its rough-hewn walls and ceiling. As he walked he said
that he hopes to use some of his time to catch a bass and maybe raise some
As Bragg spoke, his mother walked
through the room with an armful of laundry.
“I’m scared of bulls,” she said.
“I’m real scared of them.”
Bragg chuckled, shook his head
and told her before she left the room that the bulls won’t hurt her. “She’s
tough,” he said. “Sometimes I look out the window and see her dragging a big
limb across the yard.”
After the interview Bragg walked
onto his porch, which overlooks the pond that looks too little to grow a bass.
Young bulls graze nearby and look up when hearing voices. Bragg, with his
three-day beard and denim jeans, fits right in with the country scene.
“I’m getting back into the world
I neglected,” he said, “and I hope I don’t have to miss family reunions